Thomas enjoys a wine tasting at Viszlay Vineyards in
Calfornia's Sonoma Valley as she tours wine country
on a Segway.
Calif. — I’m no wine connoisseur. I have enjoyed many
a $10 bottle without wishing it was a $100 bottle. Yet, I
recently found myself beaming uncontrollably while
visiting wineries in the picturesque Sonoma County town of
Healdsburg, about an hour’s drive north of San
Francisco. Not only was I partaking of sublime sauvignon
blancs and zinfandels in one of their best growing
regions, but I was doing it via Segway.
valleys in this northern Sonoma area — nicknamed
"Winery Central" because its distinct
microclimates are ideal for wine grapes — spread out
from Healdsburg. The city is often called "a town for
all seasons," but, in my experience, the early autumn
wine harvest season is especially spectacular, albeit
crowded with tourists.
standing up on a Segway surely adds a novel and fun twist
to the already delicious pastime of wine tasting.
Healdsburg is home to three Segway companies, but I chose
Segway of Healdsburg on a recent January trip. The company
offers tours of the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley
and the Armstrong Redwoods Preserve.
had never ridden a Segway, a fact that surely added to my
sense of adventure. I’d only seen them at my kids’
high school, where the security guards patrol corridors.
Segways, also known as Personal Transporters, were first
made available in 2001, and are the first self-balancing,
electric-powered transportation machines, using five
gyroscopes and a built-in computer to stay upright.
Besides their use by police and security operations in
venues such as high schools, shopping malls and an
increasing number of urban areas, some 600 tour
organizations worldwide employ Segways as a lively
the 20-minute introduction given by our helpful tour
guide, Josh, I was equipped with a helmet and a dose of
confidence-boosting knowledge, and quickly lost my initial
trepidation. In short order, I was practicing and
perfecting figure eight’s around the parking lot on my
"trusty steed," aptly named
"Chardonnay." We were individually coached on do’s
and don’t’s, and with a maximum speed of just 12 1/2
mph, I felt safe, even with the prospect of traveling to
taking pictures, no texting, no drinking water, and no
overindulging!" Josh warned the group of riders. He
packed my camera and water bottle in the Segway’s
carrier, and reiterated that there was no need to worry
about missed photo opportunities: We would be taking
regular stops on the two-hour tour to take photos.
file and feeling a bit like robots, we eased onto a
country lane, passing vineyards and pretty farmhouses,
with warm breezes on our faces and golden and olive green
hills in the distance.
forward a bit," Josh called out, as we eased up the
hill to Viszlay Vineyards, a small
father-and-daughter-owned boutique operation. There we
celebrated our arrival with a fine sparkling prosecco (the
only one in Sonoma County) and moved on to a pinot noir
and a zinfandel. All too soon, we were back on our
"horses" and riding to Limerick Lane, heading
toward Christopher Creek Winery, just five minutes away.
There, we reveled in the gorgeous views of the Russian
River Valley from the outdoor patio tasting area.
Creek specializes in Rhone-style wines produced from old
vines, and we sipped on excellent syrah, petite sirah and,
my favorite, a sublime port. After two stops, it was time
to turn in our trusty Segways, so I mounted
"Chardonnay" for a final ride and followed the
group back to the parking lot, where we did our last 360s
and figure eights.
lush valleys are surrounded by Alexander Valley, Chalk
Hill, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley, several
of Northern California’s finest regional wine
appellations. The Alexander Valley alone boasts more than
13,000 acres of vineyards, 30 grape varieties, 28 wineries
and more than 200 independent farmers.
area wineries focus on premium wines made from locally
grown grapes. The centrally-located town, with just 11,000
or so residents, offers more than 100 world-class wineries
and tasting rooms — many within walking distance of each
other, as well as a dizzying assortment of fine dining
choices. Bring clothing with some "give" to it
— you’ll need it here.
next day brought a continuation of winery tours and wine
tasting, but this time, we traveled by bike. This
beautiful region was named one of the "Seven Greatest
Rides on Earth" by Bicycling magazine in 2013, so it
was a logical plan. My tour operator was Wine Country
Bikes, a company that operates in both Sonoma and Napa
counties and features tour routes ranging from a few hours
to full weeks, like-new bicycles and very knowledgeable
was a sunny, crisp morning and we cycled on a quiet
country road past an unlikely mix of eucalyptus, madrona,
Douglas fir, redwood and palm trees, as well as huge, lush
camellia bushes and orange and Meyer lemon trees bearing
fruit. I was shocked to see a towering redwood nestling
onto its neighboring palm tree — in this unique
microclimate, there are many incongruities.
cycling group toured the biodynamic, organic Quivira
Vineyard and Winery, tasting a local smoked goat cheddar
cheese and sampling a hearty zinfandel and a refreshing
sauvignon blanc, while touring the organic farm and
perusing its heirloom chicken pens. A quick downhill
sprint took us to Lambert Bridge Winery, a small,
family-owned and operated winery with all grape-picking
still done by hand (no waste, no bruising, they
Bridge’ winemaker, Jennifer Higgins, showed her passion
for her craft when describing her choices for our
delectable wine-paired lunch. Each Friday, Saturday and
Sunday, the winery offers seated pairings replete with
exquisite crystal goblets and sparkling china in its
beautiful, majestic redwood barrel room, with several
times available, by appointment. If you are lucky (as I
was), you might be offered the 2011 Chardonnay matched
with butternut squash soup, swirled with creme fraiche and
Tuscan olive oil. And that is just the first course.
no end to the wineries and restaurants in Healdsburg, but
I wanted to explore the town itself, with its many art
galleries, upscale boutiques and jewelry stores, and
lovingly restored homes on tree-lined streets. Here, I saw
more of those towering palms, olive trees, orange and
lemon trees and redwoods, with flowers blooming and
hummingbirds flitting everywhere, along with strolling
folks looking like they had not a care in the world — a
rare sight these days. In Healdsburg’s plaza,
reminiscent of times gone by, I saw people sitting on
benches, just sitting, and gazing, and resting — with
nary a cellphone in sight.
afternoon, we visited Relish Culinary Adventures, which
thrives in this "foodie" area. Some say the
farm-to-table movement was born in this Northern
California gastronomic paradise. Donna del Rey, owner of
Relish, says the mushroom classes at this cooking school
"always sell out," and indeed, our class was
full that day, with about 25 of us sorting, washing,
trimming, sauteing and finally indulging in four types of
mushrooms at a fabulous lunch spread, where even the
dessert bread pudding was made of maplelike Candy Cap
the typical mushroom foraging in the area has been
curtailed by the drought, which has plagued much of
California for several years. Thus, Relish had to purchase
from another area the mushrooms that we used, and while we
were dismayed by the canceled foraging, our taste buds
still delighted in the feast.
my Healdsburg visit, I stayed at the divinely romantic
Honor Mansion, a 13-room-and-suite inn situated just a
10-minute walk from the town. I was charmed at every turn
by my Vineyard Suite with its jetted deep tub in a private
garden, a fireplace opening to the indoor bathtub and the
living space, a four-posted bed with European linens, an
alluring decanter of dreamy sherry, and a set-the-mood CD
breakfast selections (included in the stay) were succulent
(you can dine outdoors by the koi pond amid lush
landscaping, or indoors in the cozy breakfast room).
Owners Steve and Cathi Fowler are clearly passionate about
their property, and the accolades have rolled in,
including recognition in three categories from
Tripadvisor.com’s Travelers’ Choice 2013 Awards and a
fifth-place ranking for the Top 10 Romantic Hotels in the
United States. Honor Mansion also earned the AAA 4 Diamond
award for 2013 and has been a Michelin-recommended hotel
four years in a row.
you haven’t heard of Healdsburg before, now is the time
to remember the name. At present, it’s still uncrowded
and somewhat undiscovered. The crowds encountered in Napa
and Mendocino may soon head for this small town, since it
was rated last year by Zagat as one of "Twenty
Awesome Winter Foodie Destinations" in the world, and
by Fodors.com as one of the "Ten Best Small Towns in
by Segway, bicycle, on foot or by car, this is a vacation
respite that I plan to visit repeatedly.